Hearing casual conversations of people nearby, and the clip-clop of countless horses and wagons, you can close your eyes and imagine that you were a casual observer during the 19th century. Open your eyes, and you will see Victorian houses built around the turn of the century, and the great white walls of a fort overlooking the straits that link Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. Little has changed in over a hundred years; cars weren't allowed then, and they aren't allowed now -- only horses and bicycles are allowed on the island. The only way there is by a ferry boat or airplane. This is Mackinac Island, first "discovered" by Jean Nicolet, who was sent out by Samuel de Champlain, the governor of New France, to explore the Great Lakes for a "Great Northwest Passage." Mackinac is a burial ground for Indian chiefs, site of a British invasion, a magnificent hotel, and a fortified fur trading post.
The Chippewa believed that the island resembled the shape of a "great turtle," and that the 75-foot limestone pinnacle of Sugar Loaf and Arch Rock -- a natural bridge -- was the work of the Great Spirit. They would canoe their great chiefs out to the island for sacred burial. Long before there were whites in the area, there was an active copper trade from the North. The combination of the Great Lakes straits and the nearby islands made the island trading post a focal point where indian and white men met from all over the northwest territory. Many famous local explorers such as Etienne Brule, Father Jacques Marquette, Joliet, and La Salle passed through these straits. (Father Jacques Marquette is buried in St. Ignace, across the straits from Mackinaw City.)
The island is now home to many famous landmarks. Coming across by ferry, you can see the Grand Hotel from miles away. The movie Somewhere In Time was filmed here. It was, (and still is) a hotel for the very rich, with one of the longest open porches (608 feet) on record. John Astor, the millionaire fur trader, also has a house here. Then there is the fort on the island itself, strategically built by the British in a perfect choke point to protect the straits from the colonists during the Revolutionary War. You can wander freely thru 14 original buildings, or take a guided tour, see 18th-century soldier's doing drill, and a cannon booms out over town every 1/2 hour. The American Army abandoned the fort and surrendered without firing a shot during the War of 1812, after they were convinced by the British commander that they were hopelessly outnumbered (and they were too)! The British King's 8th Regiment was based on the island late in the American Revolution, for those of you in the know!
By far, for we re-enactors at least, the most interesting site on the upper peninsula is not on the island, but on the mainland, at the foot of the 8,614' Mackinac Bridge. Colonial Michilimackinac is where the real action is!
First occupied by the French, Fort Michilimackinac was taken over by the British after The French and Indian War (Indians under Chief Pontiac massacred the British during the 1756 war while the French simply closed their doors and windows or watched on). This is where you meet villagers, musicians, fur traders, and British soldiers from the 1770's. The fort itself is huge, with 18 re-constructed buildings, tall wooden walls with towers that have been restored by archaeologists that you can observe working in several "dig" areas in and around the fort. The house of the "half-breed" warrior Charles de Langlade is here. You may wander freely or take a guided tour with a re-enactor, I recommend both.
Last, but not least, is Mill Creek, a re-created colonial settlement from the late 1700's. Here you can see sawmill and sawpit demonstrations from colonial re-enactors. There are also miles of trails in the 625 acre wooded park. Mill Creek settlement is only 3-1/2 miles southeast of Mackinaw City on US 23. Most of the historic parks are open from 9-6 pm daily, from May 12 to Oct 17.
Mackinac Island, Historic Mill Creek and Fort Michilimackinac are well worth visiting -- start planning next year's summer vacation to upper Michigan NOW! For more information about Mackinac State Historic Sites, write:
Mackinac State Historic Parks,
Mackinac Island, MI 49757
(906) 847-3328, or (616) 436-5563 (before May 12)